It was announced late last month that Taiwanese Vice President William Lai, who is the presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), will transit through the United States in mid-August. Lai is attending the inauguration of Santiago Peña as president of Paraguay; he will stop in New York on August 12 on his way to Paraguay and then in San Francisco on August 16 on the way back to Taiwan.
Taiwanese presidents usually do not make official visits to the United States, instead making unofficial “stopovers” while traveling to visit Taiwan’s diplomatic allies in Latin and Central America. This is expected to also be the case with Lai, who is currently leading polls for next year’s election, which will take place in January.
In January 2022, Lai transited through the U.S. two times while on the way to and from Honduras to attend the inauguration ceremony of Xiomara Castro. This was before Honduras broke off diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of recognizing the People’s Republic of China.
In 2022, Lai transited in Los Angeles while on the way to Honduras and San Francisco on the way back to Taiwan. During his San Francisco stop, Lai spoke by virtual meeting with a number of U.S. elected representatives, including Senator Tammy Duckworth. Duckworth had visited Taiwan in June 2021 for a surprise trip by a bipartisan delegation that also included Senators Dan Sullivan and Chris Coon and saw the announcement of donations of COVID-19 vaccines to Taiwan by the United States, in a period in which Taiwan was short on vaccines.
Likewise, during the San Francisco trip, Lai spoke virtually with then-U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. This presaged the historic visit to Taiwan by Pelosi in August of last year, making her the first sitting U.S. speaker of the House to visit Taiwan in a quarter century.
The precedent of his last U.S. stopover suggests that Lai could again speak virtually with high-ranking U.S. government officials or politicians in lieu of meeting with them directly, as a means of signaling restraint.
Lai also visited the United States in February 2020. During this trip, Lai attended the 68th National Prayer Breakfast, which was hosted by then-U.S. President Donald Trump. Democratic politicians such as Pelosi were in attendance as well, with Pelosi inviting Lai to the House Speaker’s office during the event, according to Taiwan’s then-representative to the United States, Stanley Kao.
While Lai attended to 2020 event in a personal capacity, as vice president-elect, he was the highest-ranking Taiwanese government official to visit the U.S. capital since 1979. This was framed by the Tsai administration as a diplomatic breakthrough. At the time, it was already expected that Lai could potentially be the DPP’s 2024 presidential candidate.
Lai will not be visiting Washington, D.C. for his upcoming trip, probably as a result of the greater sensitivity of his current status as the DPP’s presidential candidate and a sitting vice president. Nevertheless, there already has been some pushback regarding the sensitivity of Lai’s trip.
In particular, as reported by the Financial Times on July 20, there has been some ire from members of the Washington establishment over comments made by Lai that he hoped to one day see a Taiwanese president visit the White House. The Financial Times report did not name its sources, except to state that the White House had not been in touch with Lai over these comments, suggesting that such pushback came from other members of the government.
In a similar timeframe, other comments by Lai aimed at signaling moderation and a willingness to engage with China. When asked at a student event at National Taiwan University – Taiwan’s most prestigious educational institution – whom in the world he would most like to have dinner with, Lai stated that he would like to have a meal with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Lai may have not aimed to be provocative with such comments, even if there are elements of his base that likely hope that he can continue to expand Taiwan’s international space in the wake of the Tsai administration’s successes.
Nevertheless, there has been some skepticism of Lai in Washington over past comments that he made when mayor of Tainan. At the time, Lai described himself as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwanese independence.” Pushback against Lai’s U.S. visit may reflect this continued skepticism.
In past years, as his name was touted as a presidential frontrunner, Lai has sought to modulate the image that he is ideologically pro-independence. Examples include stating in 2017 that he had “an affinity toward China while loving Taiwan,” remarks that provoked backlash among the stridently pro-independence wing of the DPP. In more recent comments, such as at the DPP’s July party congress, Lai has sought to emphasize that he intends to maintain the cross-strait policy of the Tsai administration.
Either way, the Chinese government has continued to try and frame Lai as dangerously pro-independence. Beijing responded to news of Lai’s planned stopovers by stating that it hoped to prevent them, with Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Xie Feng saying that Lai was like a “grey rhino charging at us” at the Aspen Security Forum. “Grey rhinoceros” is a term similar to “black swan,” but refers to “highly probable, high-impact threats.” The term has been used by Xi Jinping in speeches in the past, as a result of which other Chinese government officials began echoing this language.
Divorced of this context, however, in its Chinese-language response, the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs later criticized Xie for “smearing the image of innocent animals with the intention of creating unrest.”
In turn, the United States, emphasizing the routine nature of the trip, has called on China to not take any provocative action over the planned stopover.
It is not out of the question that China reacts militarily through live-fire drills or other exercises in response to the Lai visit. There would be symbolism to the timing, as Lai’s visit comes roughly one year after the live-fire exercises that took place after Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022. After the Pelosi visit, China launched an unprecedented series of live-fire exercises that took place closer to Taiwan than during the Third Taiwan Straits Crisis.
If China responds with a show of force, it is likely that the Kuomintang (KMT), Taiwan’s main opposition party, will seek to use this to reinforce the narrative that the DPP’s strengthening ties with the United States endangers Taiwan.
The KMT stands to benefit from the view that Lai’s stopover is dangerously provocative. On August 1, the Liberty Times – Taiwan’s most widely read newspaper and the major newspaper of the pan-Green camp – reported suspicions that the KMT’s deputy representative in the U.S. was the source of rumors that Lai had been angling for a visit to Washington. If so, the aim of spreading such rumors may have been to discredit the Lai campaign as being insensitive to potential risks. Similarly, this could be a way to frame Lai as lacking foreign relations credentials, or being out of step with views in Washington.
The KMT’s own presidential candidate, New Taipei Mayor Hou Yu-ih, is expected to also visit the United States in the coming months and is currently visiting Japan to shore up his own foreign policy credentials.
Pan-Blue third-party candidate Ko Wen-je previously visited the U.S. in April, while Foxconn founder Terry Gou, who is hinting at a prospective presidential run as an independent, visited the U.S. in a similar timeframe to Ko and has again set off on a trip to the U.S. shortly before Lai’s trip. Though as one of Taiwan’s richest men, Gou could fund his own run, Taiwanese presidential candidates traditionally visit the United States not only to meet with U.S. government officials but to solicit donations from wealthy members of the Taiwanese diaspora.
Still, with the KMT increasingly leaning into U.S.-skeptic political arguments in the current election cycle, a visit to the United States could potentially spark blowback against Hou from within his own party, at a time when Hou is increasingly embattled. Hou recently fended off abortive efforts to replace him as the KMT’s presidential candidate at a late stage in the campaign cycle, a precedent that dates back to 2016.